A solemn journey to the ‘other’ California

Trash blows across the parking lot of a shuttered Ralph’s grocery store in Apple Valley. Many people moved to the high desert to seek space and less traffic, but the area fell on hard times in the 1990s and has never fully recovered.
Trash blows across the parking lot of a shuttered Ralph’s grocery store in Apple Valley. Many people moved to the high desert to seek space and less traffic, but the area fell on hard times in the 1990s and has never fully recovered. The Victor Valley Daily Press

I had to go to a family funeral up in Apple Valley, so I canceled a day’s worth of appointments with friends and colleagues. They offered their sympathy, but what they said next confused me: “Have a nice flight.”

Flight? No one needs an airplane to get to Apple Valley from Los Angeles. The town of 70,000 is only a 90-minute drive from downtown L.A. But some California places remain stubbornly invisible. Apple Valley, in Southern California’s high desert, is one such place.

Apple Valley is one of four big municipalities in the Victor Valley that together have as many people as Oakland. But getting there requires a climb up Interstate 15 and over El Cajon Pass. Millions of Californians eager to make it to or from Vegas speed by without giving Apple Valley a second thought. If they bothered to stop, they’d find a safe place, with the sort of people – poorer, less educated – who are too often considered dispensable in today’s California.

I drove up to Apple Valley because Great Uncle Dale lived there and died there. And he was indispensable.

For Dale, the high desert offered a big piece of land and some peace and quiet after a life of considerable struggle. During the Dust Bowl, Dale, barely a teenager, made his way west from Oklahoma with his father, Bull, landing in the Redlands area. The rest of the family, including his big sister (my grandmother), joined them to work in the orange groves and packinghouses.

As an adult, Dale started driving trucks and eventually built a small family trucking business. But mostly, he took care of his family. When other male relatives behaved irresponsibly – a far too frequent occurrence – “Big D” stepped in, serving as a father figure to younger siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins.

His interventions could make all the difference. In the 1950s, Dale was hauling sand to build much of L.A. State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) when he suggested to his baby sister Fern that she get her bachelor’s degree there. To make it happen, Dale put his three kids in one room and gave Fern her own bedroom in his home, then in the San Gabriel Valley. She graduated and spent 41 years teaching elementary school in Redlands.

My mother likes to tell the story of how Dale took her in hand after she failed her California driving test and explained his three rules for navigating the roads of our state. First, stop means stop. Second, only amateurs change lanes – so stay in your lane. Third, the secret to success in driving (and perhaps in life) is to maintain a constant speed.

That sort of wisdom fit the high desert, where Dale moved 30 years ago, like so many other Southern Californians seeking space and less traffic. There he could live like a cowboy; he loved to wear boots and big hats. By 1988, Apple Valley had grown enough to incorporate.

The irony – that parched Okies had found their slice of paradise in the desert – was not lost on them. From dust to dust.

Dale’s home had a big barn with actual hay, and the house’s main room had a full bar in the center. I loved big family Thanksgivings there. Dale and his sons’ trucking business moved all kinds of things – most recently milk – around the West; he sometimes visited us in Pasadena when he had to haul something “down the hill” – his name for Los Angeles.

Then the recession – the one in the early 1990s – hit, hard and brutal. Business in the high desert soured. (Before people proclaim a “California comeback” from 2008’s Great Recession, maybe we ought to consider recovering from the earlier collapse first). Dale and his wife, Verb, eventually moved in with one of their sons in Apple Valley.

The graveyard service was in a cemetery near the Route 66 Museum. The wind never stopped blowing as we told tales of Dale. Then we headed down State Route 18 – “Happy Trails Highway” – to Apple Valley for lunch. It was the usual spread – yards-long sandwiches and KFC – because it just isn’t a family gathering without fried chicken.

After four hours of eating and reminiscing, I said my goodbyes and headed back to the car. It was Friday afternoon. It would be a long drive down the hill. I resolved to maintain a constant speed.

Joe Mathews is California and innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.